Woodward v. Commissioner of Social Security

The Facts

  • In 1993, Lauren and Warren Woodward were informed Woodward had leukemia.
  • They had no children at the time.
  • Afraid the treatment would leave Warren sterile, they had his semen medically withdrawn and preserved.
  • Warren’s leukemia treatment was not successful and he died in October 1993.
  • Lauren was appointed administratrix of his estate.
  • In October 1995, Lauren gave birth to twin girls conceived through artificial insemination of Warren’s sperm.
  • In January 1996, Lauren filed for survivor benefits for both her and the girls.
  • Claim was rejected for the girls because Lauren had not established they were Warren’s “children” under the Act

Procedural History

  • Lauren appealed SS’s decision to Federal DC seeking a declaratory judgment to reverse SS’s ruling
  • DC sent it to Massachusetts Supreme Court

The Issue

If a married man and woman arrange for sperm to be withdrawn from the husband for the purpose of artificially impregnating the wife, and the woman is impregnated with that sperm after the man, her husband, has died, will children resulting from such pregnancy enjoy the inheritance rights of natural children under Massachusetts’ law of intestate succession?

The Rule

  • In limited circumstances, a child resulting from posthumous reproduction may enjoy the inheritance rights of “issue” under the Massachusetts intestacy statute.
  • Must demonstrate a genetic relationship between child and decedent
  • Must establish both that the decedent affirmatively consented to posthumous conception and to the support of any resulting child
  • Time limitations may preclude commencing a claim for succession rights on behalf of a posthumously conceived child
  • Notice must be given to all interested parties

The Holding/Disposition

  • Yes, if the surviving parent or child’s representative can establish the above elements

Court’s Reasoning

  • P argues that by virtue of their genetic connection w/ the decedent, posthumously conceived children must always be permitted to enjoy the inheritance rights of the deceased parents’ children under the law of intestate succession.
  • D argues that because posthumously conceived children are not “in being” as of the date of the parent’s death, they are always barred from enjoying such inheritance rights.
  • Neither of these arguments are tenable – no bright line rule.
  • The question implicates 3 powerful State interests:
  • The best interests of the children
  • Posthumously conceived children may not come into the world the way the majority of children do, but they are children nonetheless.
  • Assumption can be made that Legislature intended such children to be “entitled” in so far as possible “to the same rights and protections of the law” as children conceived before death.
  • The State’s interest in the orderly administration of estates
  • State must also protect children who are alive or conceived before the intestate parent’s death
  • Any inheritance rights of posthumously conceived children will reduce the intestate share available to children born prior to decedent’s death
  • Any non-marital child must obtain a judicial determination of paternity as a pre-requisite to succeeding to a portion of the father’s intestate estate.
  • Since death ends a marriage, all posthumously conceived children are non-marital children
  • Timeliness not an issue, however may be addressed in later cases
  • The reproductive rights of the genetic parent
  • Prospective donor parent must clearly and unequivocally consent  to both posthumous reproduction and the support of any resulting child
  • Preservation of gametes is not necessarily consent to posthumous reproduction

Mere genetic tie is not alone sufficient to bind an intestate estate

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